Urgh, sometimes it is just exhausting being a woman who participates in sport. From the everyday cat calls, and comments on whether or not “that” woman “should” be wearing “that” item of clothing (“Ooh I’m not sure she pulls that off. She hasn’t really got the figure for it has she? Should you really be running in just a sports bra?”) to the constant awareness of safety when out running alone (keys between the knuckles anyone?) it’s all just a bit much when all we want to do is just keep ourselves healthy and enjoy doing something we love.
When will women be allowed to just be when exercising, and feel safe whilst doing so?
The reason this has got my particular gander of late is because of headlines that came out during Tokyo 2020. You could only have been living under a rock not to hear about the fine handed out to the Women’s Norwegian Beach Handball team. They chose to wear – still pretty small – spandex shorts rather than bikini bottoms. Now if you’re a normal human being you’d probably think “fair enough. Those little pants are pretty revealing, and are probably less than ideal if you’re on your period, and you can still see how their bodies are moving if you want to argue that that’s the reason for minimal clothing.” But dear reader, the European Handball Federation were having none of it. They fined the team $177 per player for their protest. I mean, rules are rules, and the International Handball Federation dictates that women wear sports bras and bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg,” and sides shorter than four inches, during beach competition.
What? Ick. When pressed about this rule, IHF spokesperson Jessica Rockstroh could not point to any specific reason for it, and simply said “we’re looking into it internally.” Ok, so can I at least assume that the men’s team has similar rules to ensure that their bodies are fully on show and not restricted when playing?
And before anyone says it, I’m sure there are other teams who are quite happy wearing the bikinis. But this is what’s missing when it comes to beach handball. Choice. If it has zero impact on how someone performs their sport and has zero impact on the scoring ability of said sport, there should be equality of choice between the sexes when it comes to the kit they compete in.
And clearly this works just fine in other sports. Check out the finish line of the mixed triathlon relay at Tokyo. While Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown from Team GB wore trisuits with shorts, Leonie Periault and Cassandre Beaugrand from France wore swimsuits. They had a choice on which was more comfortable, and made it. And in the gymnastics, Sarah Voss from Germany kickstarted a revolution in her team by wearing a bodysuit (in gymnastics, this doesn’t officially break any rules). Tellingly, she said “As a little girl I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”
Arguments around what women look like or what they wear during sport is a tale as old as time. But to pick some recent examples, in 2004, Sepp Blatter’s suggestion for increasing interest in women’s football was that they should “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”. In 2013, when commentating during Wimbledon, John Inverdale said of Marion Bartoli (who went on to win the Championship) “I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.'” In 2018, the French Tennis Federation banned Serena Williams from competing in a black catsuit, despite the fact that she was wearing it not just for aesthetic purposes (it was an incredible bodysuit), but because it was a compression suit to help with blood clots, a health issue that had resulted in a pulmonary embolism in her lung that sidelined her for a year. Then just last month, Team GB paralympian Olivia Breen was told that her bottoms were “too short and revealing” and that she should wear something more appropriate. Unsurprisingly, at first glance they look less revealing than those required for beach handball.
It feels like women can’t win. Either they’re being sexualised, or are told that what they’re wearing isn’t appropriate or is too sexual. Can you imagine any of these conversations happening between a sport’s officials and the male athletes? Was Kristian Blummenfelt told off for his trisuit that became transparent when it got wet? Was Tom Daley told to wear larger swimming trunks (according to him, “they have to be small because everything has to stay in place”)? Were any male handball players told off because their vests were too baggy? If this did happen I’d be really interested to hear about it.
A study by Greater Sport showed that 1/3 girls aged 14-16 are unhappy with their body image, and another by Dove in 2010 found that 60% of girls drop out of sport due to this poor body image. If you were a self conscious 14 year old who had discovered a love of beach handball, but were then told “oh by the way, this is the outfit you’ll have to wear”, do you think you would have had the confidence to press on and wear it? I certainly wouldn’t have, and I would have wondered why I couldn’t wear a vest and shorts like the boys when we’re doing the exact same sport. Policing what women wear in sport is damaging. We should be doing everything we can to keep our girls in sport during puberty and beyond. They need to be encouraged to embrace what their bodies can do, not what they look like.
Beyond what women wear when doing sport, there is also the issue of safety when exercising. I broached this subject in a piece I wrote for Ox Gadgets last year which covered the safety of apps like Strava and the gender balance of apps like Zwift (where even in a virtual world women can’t avoid being hit on). Then when Sarah Everard’s life was so cruelly cut short when she was abducted off the street, raped and murdered by a Metropolitan Police Officer last March, I asked members of my running club if they felt safe when running, and if they had ever experienced harassment when exercising. Now I have to say that I do live in a low crime area of the UK, but even then the stories I received were harrowing. Many members, male and female alike, had stories of abuse thrown at them and stories of drivers slowing down and driving alongside them and feeling threatened when coming across people in quieter streets. But the key difference between the male and female members of the club, was that the abuse female runners received was always based around the threat of sexual violence, culminating in one runner having a driver pull over in a lay-by she was running past. He rolled down his window, and thinking he might need directions, she jogged over, only to see him looking at her as he masturbated in his car. This happened at 7.30 in the morning, in daylight, in a quiet town. As a result of this assault, she no longer runs on her own, feels anxious whenever she sees a similar car, and chooses to run different routes or at different times in case the man involved has a regular commute through the area at a similar time each day. I imagine other women might never run again after such an experience.
So where am I going with all of this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I think this blog post was borne out of frustration that has been building for a while, anger and upset that women I know have had to change their sporting behaviours because of sexual assault, and that athletes at the top of their game are still being discussed for what they wear instead of for what they do. I was a self conscious kid growing up, and I was one of those women who left sport in puberty. The reason my blog is called what it is is because I didn’t start running until I was 28. I guess I just want people to do better, and to call out casual sexism when they see it. I want them to not tell women that they should not run on their own again when they are subjected to a sexual assault, like they are somehow to blame for a man’s repulsive behaviour. And I definitely want women to keep doing peaceful protests, wearing what they feel comfortable to compete in even if the archaic rules tell them that they can’t. Because then hopefully, little by little, women competing in sport will be able to do so without being sexualised at every turn, and young women will feel empowered to stick with the sport they love as their bodies change, because they know it will go on to do wonderful things.